‘Fear and Loathing’ At Niagara Regional Council (With Apologies to Hunter S. Thompson)
“There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment.” – the late Hunter S. Thompson, writer and reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine
A News Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted October 6th, 2018 on Niagara At Large
It was what we can only hope will be the last regional council meeting ever of the Al Caslin administration – and how telling it was, once again, that so much of the peoples’ business was discussed behind closed doors.
The first two hours of this past Thursday’s (October 4th) meeting of Niagara regional council got off to a fairly decent start, with good part of the time taken up with a discussion over how best to provide enough affordable housing in communities across Niagara.
Then, barely more than two hours in to the meeting, there was Caslin on his throne, directing the council to go into closed session to discuss yet more information from legal counsel about – you may have guessed it – the process used two years ago to successfully hire Carmen D’Angelo, then the embattled Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s CAO, to the CAO job at Niagara Region.
Further to the controversy over the hiring – approved in the fall of 2016 by a majority on the Caslin-chaired council – there are more recent concerns over whatever steps Caslin took, unilaterally and apparently without the knowledge of the full council, to unilaterally extend the length of D’Angelo’s contract or reward him with a million dollar payout should a new council, sworn in after this October’s municipal elections, chose to let him go.
St. Catharines regional councillor Brian Heit – one of a handful on the Region’s council who has the guts to stand up and question some of the antics at these Caslin-chaired meetings – asked if Caslin and D’Angelo would be at the closed session given all the questions raised over their involvement in the hiring and contract controversy.
“Oh, I will be at the meeting,” Caslin shot back, before repeating the same line one more time in case his determination to attend the session had not yet sunk through.
And why wouldn’t Caslin be there.
How many times over the past four years, while Heit and that same all-too-small handful of other councillors, questioned whether Caslin and others on the council, including those who sit on the board of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, might have a conflict of interest when it came to discussing and voting on certain issues, did they barrel ahead anyway?
What constitutes a conflict of interest in this term of regional council has long ago been distorted and lost in smoke and mirrors.
So in Caslin went with the rest of the council, but not before declaring, as if it were a moment to be savoured in the Region’s history; “This is our first opportunity to use the closed session room, so let’s move over to it now.”
That “closed session room,” as Caslin called it, is the ante room – a committee room converted with roughly $50,000 of our tax money for holding closed sessions of our councils – following an incident last December that (if you really want to talk about moments in history) goes down as one of the most, if not the most disgraceful assaults on local media in the regional government’s almost 50-year existence.
The incident involved the seizure of computers, notes and other equipment belonging to St. Catharines Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk and Niagara blogger Preston Haskell, followed by their expulsion, under the watchful eye of uniformed police, from the regional headquarters.
All of this seizing and expelling due to what an Ontario Ombudsman’s investigation confirmed were totally unfounded charges that one or both of these individuals had left devices in the council chambers to secretly record a closed session that was going on at the time.
This disgusting episode had Canadian Journalists for Free Expression – a nation-wide support group for news reporters – to rightfully conclude that “the actions of Niagara Regional Council members and police are an outrageous assault on media rights, and evidence of a disturbing disregard for the role of the press in a democracy.”
It also earned our region the kind of negative publicity we hardly need in the national media if we want to attract investment and quality people who want to live and work here.
So now the good taxpayers of Niagara have been forced to fork out money that could have been spent on transit, waste collection and other services, on lawyers, on an ante room and on other measures in an effort to prevent our elected leaders and senior staff at the Region from doing something this stupid and outrageous again.
There’s not much one can do about possible conflicts of interest in the ante room however (at least not until we hopefully get some real change on the Region’s council), which brings me back to the October 4th meeting.
Caslin and the council spent more than an hour and a half in the ante room while those of us who remained outside or did not grow fed up enough to head for their care were left looking up at video screens that read; “This Meeting is in Closed Session.”
Indeed, I know I am far from the only one who long ago lost track of the countless number of hours that media representatives and members of the public have been shut outside while this Caslin-chaired council has been in closed session over one mess or another of its own making, like this one involving the hiring and contractual status of CAO Carmen D’Angelo.
All of this time that could have been spent addressing other issues that matter to the health and welfare of people across this Niagara region.
And like so many of the other closed sessions, Caslin and the council emerged without a single thing to say about what may or may not have been learned or resolved behind those doors.
This October 4th meeting of regional council – the last one before the October 22nd municipal elections – ended before Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn had a chance to raise the issue of whether or not elected politicians should sit on the NPCA’s (Conservation Authority’s) board, and before Thorold regional councillor Henry D’Angela tabled something he has wanted to table at the Region for more than a month now – the public release of the CAO’s contract.
The fact that the contract of Carmen D’Angelo – someone who is supposed to be working for us and that we pay more than $$230,000 annually in wages and benefits to – has not been made public, and the fact that it is only because of a few brave whistleblowers somewhere in regional government that we know as much as we do about it now, shows contempt for the taxpayers of this region.
How sad it is that we have finally had to resort to another investigation by the Ontario Ombudsman’s Office to get to the bottom of all the questions and concerns surrounding this contract – an investigation that is now underway and likely won’t be completed before election time.
The October 4th meeting of regional council was the last one chair by Al Caslin before these municipal elections and hopefully the voters of St. Catharines, where Caslin is running as a candidate for another term on the council, will make sure he never chairs another meeting at the Region again.
To read news commentary Niagara At Large posted this past July on the Ontario Ombudsman’s report on the December 2017 incident involving the seizure of items and expulsion of media representatives from the Region’s headquarters, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2018/07/19/apologies-are-not-enough-charges-should-be-laid-heads-should-roll/ .
For further news on this incident, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2017/12/08/canada-wide-journalists-organizaation-condemns-seizure-of-st-catharines-standard-reporters-notes-and-laptop/ .
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